No Revolution is an Island (From the Archive)

In 1790, San Domingo was widely considered the richest colony in the world, the jewel of France's overseas possessions. The French had received the western half of Hispaniola from the Spanish in the late 1600s...

In 1790, San Domingo was widely considered the richest colony in the world, the jewel of France's overseas possessions. The French had received the western half of Hispaniola from the Spanish in the late 1600s, and colonists had built vast plantations over the subsequent century. After the Seven Years’ War, investment in the colony exploded, and so did the importation of slaves. Just before the Revolution, the colony held some 500,000 slaves, 32,000 French colonists, and produced an astonishing percentage of the luxury commodities Europe consumed (40 percent of sugar, 60 percent of coffee).

Like any slave society, the colony was riven by deep social divisions, along and within the color lines. The planters who owned most of the island were prosperous, but largely absentee - for them, life was in France, and running their plantations was a violent, hated task that they hired out as soon as possible. Beneath the planters were the “small whites”, men of little means save their white skin, and therefore extremely proud of this single, dubious asset. A century of intermixture of male colonists and a chronic shortage of women had created a large class of free mulattoes, some of them very prosperous - they did not have another life in France to shuttle their wealth or persons to. In the late 1700s, the small whites had begun to react against the prosperity of the mulattoes in ways that eerily prefigure Hitlerian Germany (race codes broken down into 128th parts of the blood, for instance). Royal governance maintained a precarious balance between the plantation slaveowners, the small whites and the free mulattoes.

Below all of these, and the means for all of their prosperity, were the masses of black slaves. In the colony’s late years of plenty, despite disease, overwork, violence and the rest, the slave population grew and grew by profitable importation. More new slaves were being brought in each year than there were free men on the island - roughly 40,000 annually. This consequence of prosperity will contribute no small measure to the conflagration that consumed the colony for the next decade: over half of the slaves on the island had been born free and imported across the Middle Passage.

The French Revolution of 1789 destabilized San Domingo immediately. The situation in Paris was unstable and rapidly changing enough; in San Domingo that uncertainty was amplified by every day it took information to sail across the Atlantic. The powers-that-were favored first one policy or class, now another; when a set of Commissioners was sent, their mandate could be recalled before they even arrived. A round-trip exchange could take months.

At the onset, the small whites declared themselves Patriots and went to war with the large landowners, seeking to level their privilege and property. Neither side wanted to truly upset the previous regime - those without property sought to take it, those with land and riches sought to defend it. The landowners started with little thought of the mulattoes, and the small whites wished to tear down and embarrass them; as it became apparent that they were the most powerful uncommitted class, the landowners forgot their old race prejudice, in order to unite their numbers and capital. As the classes above them fought and connived, the slaves, so overwhelmingly numerous and downtrodden, began to feel their opportunity. Their abolition would be the most lasting outcome of this war between the whites.

As the French Revolution played out in Paris and the mainland, it developed in parallel in San Domingo, two poles exerting and feeling their opposites’ influence. Three empires and four classes were vying for power in the vacuum created by the fall of the French royalty, and for two of the classes, liberty and existence were at stake. The ‘sides’ in the San Domingo conflict constantly realigned along political, economic, social and international axes.

By 1794, fighting had been sporadic and wide-ranging across the three provinces of the colony. Spain, England and France had each taken a turn holding the island, but the real force was slowly coalescing: slowly, surely, Toussaint L’Ouverture had been organizing and training his small army to the standard of the European troops, and fighting under the Spanish flag. When the masses in Paris gave their last great paroxysm of revolt and Robespierre ran the Assembly, the fateful proclamation of abolition was issued. Toussaint took up the tricolor, and strode from preparation into history. He and the remarkable organization of freed slaves around him were not going to let Pandora’s box be closed, by the Directory, William Pitt, or the devil himself.